The Rescue by Joseph Conrad
Part VI. The Claim of Life and the Toll of Death
In a roomy cabin, furnished and fitted with austere comfort, Mr. Travers reposed at ease in a low bed-place under a snowy white sheet and a light silk coverlet, his head sunk in a white pillow of extreme purity. A faint scent of lavender hung about the fresh linen. Though lying on his back like a person who is seriously ill Mr. Travers was conscious of nothing worse than a great fatigue. Mr. Travers' restfulness had something faintly triumphant in it. To find himself again on board his yacht had soothed his vanity and had revived his sense of his own importance. He contemplated it in a distant perspective, restored to its proper surroundings and unaffected by an adventure too extraordinary to trouble a superior mind or even to remain in one's memory for any length of time. He was not responsible. Like many men ambitious of directing the affairs of a nation, Mr. Travers disliked the sense of responsibility. He would not have been above evading it in case of need, but with perverse loftiness he really, in his heart, scorned it. That was the reason why he was able to lie at rest and enjoy a sense of returning vigour. But he did not care much to talk as yet, and that was why the silence in the stateroom had lasted for hours. The bulkhead lamp had a green silk shade. It was unnecessary to admit for a moment the existence of impudence or ruffianism. A discreet knocking at the cabin door sounded deferential.
Mrs. Travers got up to see what was wanted, and returned without uttering a single word to the folding armchair by the side of the bed-place, with an envelope in her hand which she tore open in the greenish light. Mr. Travers remained incurious but his wife handed to him an unfolded sheet of paper which he condescended to hold up to his eyes. It contained only one line of writing. He let the paper fall on the coverlet and went on reposing as before. It was a sick man's repose. Mrs. Travers in the armchair, with her hands on the arm-rests, had a great dignity of attitude.
"I intend to go," she declared after a time.
"You intend to go," repeated Mr. Travers in a feeble, deliberate voice. "Really, it doesn't matter what you decide to do. All this is of so little importance. It seems to me that there can be no possible object."
"Perhaps not," she admitted. "But don't you think that the uttermost farthing should always be paid?"
Mr. Travers' head rolled over on the pillow and gave a covertly scared look at that outspoken woman. But it rolled back again at once and the whole man remained passive, the very embodiment of helpless exhaustion. Mrs. Travers noticed this, and had the unexpected impression that Mr. Travers was not so ill as he looked. "He's making the most of it. It's a matter of diplomacy," she thought. She thought this without irony, bitterness, or disgust. Only her heart sank a little lower and she felt that she could not remain in the cabin with that man for the rest of the evening. For all life--yes! But not for that evening.
"It's simply monstrous," murmured the man, who was either very diplomatic or very exhausted, in a languid manner. "There is something abnormal in you."
Mrs. Travers got up swiftly.
"One comes across monstrous things. But I assure you that of all the monsters that wait on what you would call a normal existence the one I dread most is tediousness. A merciless monster without teeth or claws. Impotent. Horrible!"
She left the stateroom, vanishing out of it with noiseless resolution. No power on earth could have kept her in there for another minute. On deck she found a moonless night with a velvety tepid feeling in the air, and in the sky a mass of blurred starlight, like the tarnished tinsel of a worn-out, very old, very tedious firmament. The usual routine of the yacht had been already resumed, the awnings had been stretched aft, a solitary round lamp had been hung as usual under the main boom. Out of the deep gloom behind it d'Alcacer, a long, loose figure, lounged in the dim light across the deck. D'Alcacer had got promptly in touch with the store of cigarettes he owed to the Governor General's generosity. A large, pulsating spark glowed, illuminating redly the design of his lips under the fine dark moustache, the tip of his nose, his lean chin. D'Alcacer reproached himself for an unwonted light-heartedness which had somehow taken possession of him. He had not experienced that sort of feeling for years. Reprehensible as it was he did not want anything to disturb it. But as he could not run away openly from Mrs. Travers he advanced to meet her.
"I do hope you have nothing to tell me," he said with whimsical earnestness.
"I? No! Have you?"
He assured her he had not, and proffered a request. "Don't let us tell each other anything, Mrs. Travers. Don't let us think of anything. I believe it will be the best way to get over the evening." There was real anxiety in his jesting tone.
"Very well," Mrs. Travers assented, seriously. "But in that case we had better not remain together." She asked, then, d'Alcacer to go below and sit with Mr. Travers who didn't like to be left alone. "Though he, too, doesn't seem to want to be told anything," she added, parenthetically, and went on: "But I must ask you something else, Mr. d'Alcacer. I propose to sit down in this chair and go to sleep--if I can. Will you promise to call me about five o'clock? I prefer not to speak to any one on deck, and, moreover, I can trust you."
He bowed in silence and went away slowly. Mrs. Travers, turning her head, perceived a steady light at the brig's yard-arm, very bright among the tarnished stars. She walked aft and looked over the taffrail. It was exactly like that other night. She half expected to hear presently the low, rippling sound of an advancing boat. But the universe remained without a sound. When she at last dropped into the deck chair she was absolutely at the end of her power of thinking. "I suppose that's how the condemned manage to get some sleep on the night before the execution," she said to herself a moment before her eyelids closed as if under a leaden hand.
She woke up, with her face wet with tears, out of a vivid dream of Lingard in chain-mail armour and vaguely recalling a Crusader, but bare-headed and walking away from her in the depths of an impossible landscape. She hurried on to catch up with him but a throng of barbarians with enormous turbans came between them at the last moment and she lost sight of him forever in the flurry of a ghastly sand-storm. What frightened her most was that she had not been able to see his face. It was then that she began to cry over her hard fate. When she woke up the tears were still rolling down her cheeks and she perceived in the light of the deck-lamp d'Alcacer arrested a little way off.
"Did you have to speak to me?" she asked.
"No," said d'Alcacer. "You didn't give me time. When I came as far as this I fancied I heard you sobbing. It must have been a delusion."
"Oh, no. My face is wet yet. It was a dream. I suppose it is five o'clock. Thank you for being so punctual. I have something to do before sunrise."
D'Alcacer moved nearer. "I know. You have decided to keep an appointment on the sandbank. Your husband didn't utter twenty words in all these hours but he managed to tell me that piece of news."
"I shouldn't have thought," she murmured, vaguely.
"He wanted me to understand that it had no importance," stated d'Alcacer in a very serious tone.
"Yes. He knows what he is talking about," said Mrs. Travers in such a bitter tone as to disconcert d'Alcacer for a moment. "I don't see a single soul about the decks," Mrs. Travers continued, almost directly.
"The very watchmen are asleep," said d'Alcacer.
"There is nothing secret in this expedition, but I prefer not to call any one. Perhaps you wouldn't mind pulling me off yourself in our small boat."
It seemed to her that d'Alcacer showed some hesitation. She added: "It has no importance, you know."
He bowed his assent and preceded her down the side in silence. When she entered the boat he had the sculls ready and directly she sat down he shoved off. It was so dark yet that but for the brig's yard-arm light he could not have kept his direction. He pulled a very deliberate stroke, looking over his shoulder frequently. It was Mrs. Travers who saw first the faint gleam of the uncovered sandspit on the black, quiet water.
"A little more to the left," she said. "No, the other way . . . " D'Alcacer obeyed her directions but his stroke grew even slower than before. She spoke again. "Don't you think that the uttermost farthing should always be paid, Mr. d'Alcacer?"
D'Alcacer glanced over his shoulder, then: "It would be the only honourable way. But it may be hard. Too hard for our common fearful hearts."
"I am prepared for anything."
He ceased pulling for a moment . . . "Anything that may be found on a sandbank," Mrs. Travers went on. "On an arid, insignificant, and deserted sandbank."
D'Alcacer gave two strokes and ceased again.
"There is room for a whole world of suffering on a sandbank, for all the bitterness and resentment a human soul may be made to feel."
"Yes, I suppose you would know," she whispered while he gave a stroke or two and again glanced over his shoulder. She murmured the words:
"Bitterness, resentment," and a moment afterward became aware of the keel of the boat running up on the sand. But she didn't move, and d'Alcacer, too, remained seated on the thwart with the blades of his sculls raised as if ready to drop them and back the dinghy out into deep water at the first sign.
Mrs. Travers made no sign, but she asked, abruptly: "Mr. d'Alcacer, do you think I shall ever come back?"
Her tone seemed to him to lack sincerity. But who could tell what this abruptness covered--sincere fear or mere vanity? He asked himself whether she was playing a part for his benefit, or only for herself.
"I don't think you quite understand the situation, Mrs. Travers. I don't think you have a clear idea, either of his simplicity or of his visionary's pride."
She thought, contemptuously, that there were other things which d'Alcacer didn't know and surrendered to a sudden temptation to enlighten him a little.
"You forget his capacity for passion and that his simplicity doesn't know its own strength."
There was no mistaking the sincerity of that murmur. "She has felt it," d'Alcacer said to himself with absolute certitude. He wondered when, where, how, on what occasion? Mrs. Travers stood up in the stern sheets suddenly and d'Alcacer leaped on the sand to help her out of the boat.
"Hadn't I better hang about here to take you back again?" he suggested, as he let go her hand.
"You mustn't!" she exclaimed, anxiously. "You must return to the yacht. There will be plenty of light in another hour. I will come to this spot and wave my handkerchief when I want to be taken off."
At their feet the shallow water slept profoundly, the ghostly gleam of the sands baffled the eye by its lack of form. Far off, the growth of bushes in the centre raised a massive black bulk against the stars to the southward. Mrs. Travers lingered for a moment near the boat as if afraid of the strange solitude of this lonely sandbank and of this lone sea that seemed to fill the whole encircling universe of remote stars and limitless shadows. "There is nobody here," she whispered to herself.
"He is somewhere about waiting for you, or I don't know the man," affirmed d'Alcacer in an undertone. He gave a vigorous shove which sent the little boat into the water.
D'Alcacer was perfectly right. Lingard had come up on deck long before Mrs. Travers woke up with her face wet with tears. The burial party had returned hours before and the crew of the brig were plunged in sleep, except for two watchmen, who at Lingard's appearance retreated noiselessly from the poop. Lingard, leaning on the rail, fell into a sombre reverie of his past. Reproachful spectres crowded the air, animated and vocal, not in the articulate language of mortals but assailing him with faint sobs, deep sighs, and fateful gestures. When he came to himself and turned about they vanished, all but one dark shape without sound or movement. Lingard looked at it with secret horror.
"Who's that?" he asked in a troubled voice.
The shadow moved closer: "It's only me, sir," said Carter, who had left orders to be called directly the Captain was seen on deck.
"Oh, yes, I might have known," mumbled Lingard in some confusion. He requested Carter to have a boat manned and when after a time the young man told him that it was ready, he said "All right!" and remained leaning on his elbow.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Carter after a longish silence, "but are you going some distance?"
"No, I only want to be put ashore on the sandbank."
Carter was relieved to hear this, but also surprised. "There is nothing living there, sir," he said.
"I wonder," muttered Lingard.
"But I am certain," Carter insisted. "The last of the women and children belonging to those cut-throats were taken off by the sampans which brought you and the yacht-party out."
He walked at Lingard's elbow to the gangway and listened to his orders.
"Directly there is enough light to see flags by, make a signal to the schooner to heave short on her cable and loose her sails. If there is any hanging back give them a blank gun, Mr. Carter. I will have no shilly-shallying. If she doesn't go at the word, by heavens, I will drive her out. I am still master here--for another day."
The overwhelming sense of immensity, of disturbing emptiness, which affects those who walk on the sands in the midst of the sea, intimidated Mrs. Travers. The world resembled a limitless flat shadow which was motionless and elusive. Then against the southern stars she saw a human form that isolated and lone appeared to her immense: the shape of a giant outlined amongst the constellations. As it approached her it shrank to common proportions, got clear of the stars, lost its awesomeness, and became menacing in its ominous and silent advance. Mrs. Travers hastened to speak.
"You have asked for me. I am come. I trust you will have no reason to regret my obedience."
He walked up quite close to her, bent down slightly to peer into her face. The first of the tropical dawn put its characteristic cold sheen into the sky above the Shore of Refuge.
Mrs. Travers did not turn away her head.
"Are you looking for a change in me? No. You won't see it. Now I know that I couldn't change even if I wanted to. I am made of clay that is too hard."
"I am looking at you for the first time," said Lingard. "I never could see you before. There were too many things, too many thoughts, too many people. No, I never saw you before. But now the world is dead."
He grasped her shoulders, approaching his face close to hers. She never flinched.
"Yes, the world is dead," she said. "Look your fill then. It won't be for long."
He let her go as suddenly as though she had struck him. The cold white light of the tropical dawn had crept past the zenith now and the expanse of the shallow waters looked cold, too, without stir or ripple within the enormous rim of the horizon where, to the west, a shadow lingered still.
"Take my arm," he said.
She did so at once, and turning their backs on the two ships they began to walk along the sands, but they had not made many steps when Mrs. Travers perceived an oblong mound with a board planted upright at one end. Mrs. Travers knew that part of the sands. It was here she used to walk with her husband and d'Alcacer every evening after dinner, while the yacht lay stranded and her boats were away in search of assistance--which they had found--which they had found! This was something that she had never seen there before. Lingard had suddenly stopped and looked at it moodily. She pressed his arm to rouse him and asked, "What is this?"
"This is a grave," said Lingard in a low voice, and still gazing at the heap of sand. "I had him taken out of the ship last night. Strange," he went on in a musing tone, "how much a grave big enough for one man only can hold. His message was to forget everything."
"Never, never," murmured Mrs. Travers. "I wish I had been on board the Emma. . . . You had a madman there," she cried out, suddenly. They moved on again, Lingard looking at Mrs. Travers who was leaning on his arm.
"I wonder which of us two was mad," he said.
"I wonder you can bear to look at me," she murmured. Then Lingard spoke again.
"I had to see you once more."
"That abominable Jorgenson," she whispered to herself.
"No, no, he gave me my chance--before he gave me up."
Mrs. Travers disengaged her arm and Lingard stopped, too, facing her in a long silence.
"I could not refuse to meet you," said Mrs. Travers at last. "I could not refuse you anything. You have all the right on your side and I don't care what you do or say. But I wonder at my own courage when I think of the confession I have to make." She advanced, laid her hand on Lingard's shoulder and spoke earnestly. "I shuddered at the thought of meeting you again. And now you must listen to my confession."
"Don't say a word," said Lingard in an untroubled voice and never taking his eyes from her face. "I know already."
"You can't," she cried. Her hand slipped off his shoulder. "Then why don't you throw me into the sea?" she asked, passionately. "Am I to live on hating myself?"
"You mustn't!" he said with an accent of fear. "Haven't you understood long ago that if you had given me that ring it would have been just the same?"
"Am I to believe this? No, no! You are too generous to a mere sham. You are the most magnanimous of men but you are throwing it away on me. Do you think it is remorse that I feel? No. If it is anything it is despair. But you must have known that--and yet you wanted to look at me again."
"I told you I never had a chance before," said Lingard in an unmoved voice. "It was only after I heard they gave you the ring that I felt the hold you have got on me. How could I tell before? What has hate or love to do with you and me? Hate. Love. What can touch you? For me you stand above death itself; for I see now that as long as I live you will never die."
They confronted each other at the southern edge of the sands as if afloat on the open sea. The central ridge heaped up by the winds masked from them the very mastheads of the two ships and the growing brightness of the light only augmented the sense of their invincible solitude in the awful serenity of the world. Mrs. Travers suddenly put her arm across her eyes and averted her face.
Then he added:
Mrs. Travers let fall her arm and began to retrace her steps, unsupported and alone. Lingard followed her on the edge of the sand uncovered by the ebbing tide. A belt of orange light appeared in the cold sky above the black forest of the Shore of Refuge and faded quickly to gold that melted soon into a blinding and colourless glare. It was not till after she had passed Jaffir's grave that Mrs. Travers stole a backward glance and discovered that she was alone. Lingard had left her to herself. She saw him sitting near the mound of sand, his back bowed, his hands clasping his knees, as if he had obeyed the invincible call of his great visions haunting the grave of the faithful messenger. Shading her eyes with her hand Mrs. Travers watched the immobility of that man of infinite illusions. He never moved, he never raised his head. It was all over. He was done with her. She waited a little longer and then went slowly on her way.
Shaw, now acting second mate of the yacht, came off with another hand in a little boat to take Mrs. Travers on board. He stared at her like an offended owl. How the lady could suddenly appear at sunrise waving her handkerchief from the sandbank he could not understand. For, even if she had managed to row herself off secretly in the dark, she could not have sent the empty boat back to the yacht. It was to Shaw a sort of improper miracle.
D'Alcacer hurried to the top of the side ladder and as they met on deck Mrs. Travers astonished him by saying in a strangely provoking tone:
"You were right. I have come back." Then with a little laugh which impressed d'Alcacer painfully she added with a nod downward, "and Martin, too, was perfectly right. It was absolutely unimportant."
She walked on straight to the taffrail and d'Alcacer followed her aft, alarmed at her white face, at her brusque movements, at the nervous way in which she was fumbling at her throat. He waited discreetly till she turned round and thrust out toward him her open palm on which he saw a thick gold ring set with a large green stone.
"Look at this, Mr. d'Alcacer. This is the thing which I asked you whether I should give up or conceal--the symbol of the last hour--the call of the supreme minute. And he said it would have made no difference! He is the most magnanimous of men and the uttermost farthing has been paid. He has done with me. The most magnanimous . . . but there is a grave on the sands by which I left him sitting with no glance to spare for me. His last glance on earth! I am left with this thing. Absolutely unimportant. A dead talisman." With a nervous jerk she flung the ring overboard, then with a hurried entreaty to d'Alcacer, "Stay here a moment. Don't let anybody come near us," she burst into tears and turned her back on him.
Lingard returned on board his brig and in the early afternoon the Lightning got under way, running past the schooner to give her a lead through the maze of Shoals. Lingard was on deck but never looked once at the following vessel. Directly both ships were in clear water he went below saying to Carter: "You know what to do."
"Yes, sir," said Carter.
Shortly after his Captain had disappeared from the deck Carter laid the main topsail to the mast. The Lightning lost her way while the schooner with all her light kites abroad passed close under her stern holding on her course. Mrs. Travers stood aft very rigid, gripping the rail with both hands. The brim of her white hat was blown upward on one side and her yachting skirt stirred in the breeze. By her side d'Alcacer waved his hand courteously. Carter raised his cap to them.
During the afternoon he paced the poop with measured steps, with a pair of binoculars in his hand. At last he laid the glasses down, glanced at the compass-card and walked to the cabin skylight which was open.
"Just lost her, sir," he said. All was still down there. He raised his voice a little:
"You told me to let you know directly I lost sight of the yacht."
The sound of a stifled groan reached the attentive Carter and a weary voice said, "All right, I am coming."
When Lingard stepped out on the poop of the Lightning the open water had turned purple already in the evening light, while to the east the Shallows made a steely glitter all along the sombre line of the shore. Lingard, with folded arms, looked over the sea. Carter approached him and spoke quietly.
"The tide has turned and the night is coming on. Hadn't we better get away from these Shoals, sir?"
Lingard did not stir.
"Yes, the night is coming on. You may fill the main topsail, Mr. Carter," he said and he relapsed into silence with his eyes fixed in the southern board where the shadows were creeping stealthily toward the setting sun. Presently Carter stood at his elbow again.
"The brig is beginning to forge ahead, sir," he said in a warning tone.
Lingard came out of his absorption with a deep tremor of his powerful frame like the shudder of an uprooted tree.
"How was the yacht heading when you lost sight of her?" he asked.
"South as near as possible," answered Carter. "Will you give me a course to steer for the night, sir?"
Lingard's lips trembled before he spoke but his voice was calm.
"Steer north," he said.